Monday, April 25, 2016

Very afraid

During the SAQA conference a couple of weeks ago I heard at least four presentations in which the topic of fear played a prominent role.  Yes, in the final reckoning fear was always vanquished, at least temporarily, but I had an uncomfortable feeling about the whole subject being brought to our attention so frequently.

Several trains of thought left from that station.

First, I wonder why fear is such a popular subject for artist presentations.  Maybe starting with the famous "Art and Fear" book, there seems to be a pervasive assumption that yes, of course artists suffer from fear, and that overcoming fear (aka self-doubt) is the major task one has to accomplish in order to unlock one's full artistic potential.  If only we could get past our fear of success, or maybe our fear of failure, or perhaps it's our fear of being liked, or being disliked, or something....  then we could MAKE ART!!!  In 20 years of working among actuaries, and in 40 years of working in communications I never once heard a professional development talk in either field exhorting people to overcome fear, so I wonder just what is there about artists that makes us so fragile.

Second, I wonder whether this fear of fear is gender-related.  Let's have a thought experiment.  Let's imagine a professional group called the Heavy Metal Sculpture Artists, of which Richard Serra is the president, and let's further imagine that it's 90% male, because you know those welding tools are really heavy.  At the HMSA annual conference, how many presentations do you suppose will talk about conquering fear?  I imagine not very many.  (After all, a guy packing real heat with a welding tool is almost as well-defended as one packing mere metaphorical heat.)

Third, I wonder whether all this talk about the need to overcome fear really helps people overcome fear -- or whether it actually encourages and enables fear.  People who do have doubt and fear are comforted: apparently everybody has doubt and fear, I must be just fine, I'm like everybody else, it's OK to be afraid.  You could walk in to a conference fearing nothing, your self-esteem at an all-time high, and by the time you sit through four or five of these talks you could start thinking geez, I'm not afraid, what's wrong with me????

All together now, let's sing:

Whenever I feel afraid
I hold my head erect
And whistle a happy tune
So no one will suspect
I'm afraid.

While shivering in my shoes
I strike a careless pose
And whistle a happy tune
And no one ever knows
I'm afraid.

The result of this deception
Is very strange to tell
For when I fool the people I fear
I fool myself as well!

I whistle a happy tune
And every single time
The happiness in the tune
Convinces me that I'm
Not afraid.

Make believe you're brave
And the trick will take you far.
You may be as brave
As you make believe you are.

So if I were organizing the next SAQA conference I would tell all the presenters that there will be no talk of fear.  There will be talk of hard work, and continuous learning, and rigorous reading and thinking, and brave self-evaluation.  Focus on those things, and maybe fewer people will be afraid.


  1. You make me smile. Thanks for those thoughts. I'll be whistling while I work today.

  2. Hm that's interesting. I picked up on that a bit too. I'm wondering what's to be afraid of? Rejection? Maybe. I think your gender question is spot on too. Do we think Picasso or Dali was afraid, if so, they covered it up with a whole lot of balls,.. er bravdo!

  3. Thank you. I do think some discussion of fear is worthwhile. But certainly that is not what we should focus on. On Friday evening our daughter and her two children were over. Time after time she commented to one or the other about fear or scary or being afraid, of spiders or snakes or dinosaurs or movies or... I thought it would be good to speak less of fear, not to TEACH fear. Your post makes me believe that's right. Thanks again.

  4. Personally I think the word "fear" should be reserved for something really fearful, like being kidnapped or falling into a canyon or???. Not for sewing, quilting, painting, and other fun creative endeavors. Perhaps timidity should be used for these/

  5. Kathy, I always appreciate your posts because you articulate things that have been lurking in my thoughts - I think you are correct about the gender concept. At a regional meeting of a similar group someone I was chatting with referred to abstract art as "too hard." I was at a loss for how to reply. Any good art is hard, isn't it? If it was easy there would be a lot more of it around.....

  6. Thank you for your discussion. I don't think it's just about the arts industry though - I hear the same things at architecture forums too! I had never really put it together as you did though. It made me think and smile. Thanks again.

  7. Not to put human thought process on the same plane as dogs (I won't go into which is getting demoted :-) ), but I've read that if you have a fearful dog, the worst you can do is fuss over it during a thunderstorm. It reinforces "thunderstorm + my fear = lots of attention! YAY!" I see no reason why it's not much different with many people.

    1. Exactly. I get incredibly tired of taking classes where there's that whiner who says "I caaaaan't" and then the teacher goes to help the poor dear - for the whole rest of the class time. So the whiny "fearful" one just got rewarded for being fearful, and refusing to try the technique, wasting everyone else's class time in the process. When really, someone should have said, "SIT. TRY. REPEAT" and turned away.

  8. I know I get waylaid by the idea that everything I do has to be perfect and what if I make a mistake and it doesn't turn out perfect. OH NO! I have to remind myself that not everything can or even should turn out perfect. Perhaps we need a workshop on how to rework or reuse first-time flops into successes.

  9. I wish I knew more about the context of what you describe, but it makes me sad to hear it. I guess it is a nice, edgy, modern subject of discussion, and must be acknowledged. So I agree with Melanie, that fear merits discussion, but that we should not teach fear, or dwell on it let alone celebrate it. Fear is so pervasive in our culture; I guess I regard creativity as the exact opposite of fear!

  10. I too get the "has to be perfect" paralysis. I don't want to "waste" materials by doing it "wrong". You do it right the first time or don't do it. I was partly raised by Depression Era grandparents, and so I'm sure that's where some of that comes from. However, I do remind myself that my grandfather, a prolific and talented artist in oils, watercolor, pen & ink, woodcarving, sculpture, etc. undoubtedly "wasted" quite a bit of materials in producing the pieces that he kept. Except he called it practicing, sketching, experimenting, etc.
    I also agree, that "fear" is not really the right word. I think the idea is really more overcoming a detrimental mindset that is hindering your work. But that isn't a very catchy soundbite for a workshop is it?